“Every few years a secret society in New Zealand gathers for a special event: THE UNHOLY MASQUERADE. In the months leading up to the ball, a documentary crew was granted full access to a small group of this society. Each crew member wore a crucifix and was granted protection by the subjects of the film.”
So begins “What We Do in the Shadows,” an inspired, riotous mockumentary as sharply funny as any film this year.
It joins Jim Jarmusch’s dry romantic epic “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Ana Lily Amirpour’s somber Iranian drama “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” in subverting the vampire genre with winking charm and a swift knee to the groin.
“Shadows” stars and is directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. While the latter might be new to American audiences, Clement is one of the two geniuses better known as musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.
Those who love the Conchords’ music and HBO series have an idea what to expect from “What We Do in the Shadows.” This is above all a comedy, but one fueled with intelligence and even pathos.
Pathos, after all, is essential when the leads of the film are centuries old. The general premise sees a documentary crew filming the everyday lives of four flatmates in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand.
Leader of the undead residents is Viago (co-director Waititi), a lovelorn, 317-year-old dandy. Clement plays Vladislav, age 862, a reformed torturer still smarting from his encounter years before with a figure known as “the Beast.” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is described by Viago as the “young bad boy of the group” at 183.
And then there is Petyr, an 8,000-year-old Nosferatu look-alike who does not say a word, but whose presence, so to speak, overpowers the others. As we discover, he is the most monstrous of these mostly likable monsters.
Petyr, Vladislav and Deacon share a mutual distaste for chores. “I want to have a quick chat about flat responsibilities,” says Viago as the film begins, noting that the dishes have not been done in five years.
That pairing of the mundane with the absurd is essential to “Shadows’ ” success. These vampires worry about cleaning up the blood on their floors, trying to get invited in to nightclubs (being invited in is a requirement), and how they look before going out, since mirrors are no help to the undead.
Also difficult is the process of finding humans to drain (“One of the most unfortunate things about being a vampire is … you have to drink human blood”) and dealing with new recruits.
That is the position of sad-sack Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a regular guy with the misfortune of winding up at the flat, and suffering through a gloriously deranged chase through the house that includes one member of the group transforming into a … well, you’ll see.
Nick finds that the transition into vampire life is not easy. It’s a bit like the flu, he says, but “my eyes bleed heaps.” And how does one explain the situation to friends?
Luckily, Nick’s friend Stu (Stu Rutherford) is chill about the whole thing. In fact, the deadpan Stu becomes the group’s conduit to modern life, demonstrating digital cameras, cellphones, YouTube (finally, a chance to watch the sunset), Facebook and beyond.
(Vladislav is thrilled to find pictures of virgins, but notes, “I don’t think she’s a virgin if she’s doing that.”)
The arrival of Nick leads to some complications, with a “fatal sunlight accident,” group squabbling and bold posturing. (“You know the main guy, Twilight? That’s me.”)
It all culminates in the Unholy Masquerade, and several of the funniest scenes of Clement’s stellar career, especially his final “battle” with the Beast. The cast is uniformly excellent, but as expected, Clement steals the show.
“What We Do in the Shadows” is the ideal cult classic, a midnight movie made with real wit and undeniable warmth. Think vampire movies and mockumentaries have grown stale? Petyr will make you think otherwise.
"What We Do In The Shadows"
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Ben Fransham, Jonathan Brugh
Director: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Running Time: 85 minutes
Rating: Not rated; R equivalent for language, violence and adult situations
The Lowdown: A mockumentary about four centuries-old vampires who share a flat in New Zealand.